A note on three presidents, two bombs, and the end of the world
Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
And here we are, citizens of the world, facing Vladimir Putin like Greeks before the Sphinx. What do you want? What do you think? What is your mystical vision of history, how vast are your imperial dreams? How many and how ferocious are your demons? How far are you willing to go? Are there limits? If there are, will you find it easier to respect them in triumph or in defeat? Are you more dangerous when cornered or victorious?
Nobody knows. In an interview with journalist Ezra Klein, CNN host and political analyst Fareed Zakaria suggests that today, no country in the world is more unstable than Russia. Even in the world’s most tightly controlled authoritarian regimes, some institutional solidity tends to ballast political processes; protocols and bureaucratic mechanisms signal how decisions will be made. In the former Soviet Union, when the General Secretary of the Communist Party died, the Presidium would convene, and there was no doubt that it would produce the nation’s new leader. If Chinese president Xi Jinping should die tomorrow, it will be global news, but not a traumatic shock, since it will come divorced from the fear of institutional upheaval – a high-ranking member of the political technocracy will replace him. The same is true for dynastic totalitarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea. One Saud dies and another Saud steps in; one Kim dies and another Kim steps in.
Not so in Putin’s Russia, where there are no clear lines of succession, no presumed heirs. And that is a problem. One gets the impression that Louis XIV’s apocryphal declaration, “I am the State,” words supposedly spoken by a monarch with defined heirs, droves of counselors and a vast bureaucratic entourage at his beck and call, might roll more easily off the tongue of the Sun-King of the Kremlin: “I am Russia.”
And that is how it seems. Traditional autocracies take the shape of a pyramid, with the leader at the apex; below him come the various layers of State bureaucracy, in order of hierarchical importance. In contemporary Russia, that pyramid has collapsed. Like a tripod folding up, the sides have been drawn into the center, coming together in a vertical line. A staff is the new shape of the State, and the sole hand resting on its knob is Putin’s. The only hand, of course, also resting on that button.
Putin is the solitary man who, isolated from everything and from all, may be using prevailing suspicions of his irrationality as a political weapon. Or perhaps, as others speculate, he has already broken from reality. At this stage, no hypothesis should be discarded. Since February, the possibility of a catastrophic event has been introduced into our calculations. While that scenario may not yet be probable, it is now possible. Much more so than a month ago, incomparably more so than a year or a decade ago.
Europe is frightened. As The New York Times has shown, in Italy, a company that builds nuclear bunkers, which had made fifty of them over the past twenty-two years, processed five hundred orders in the first two weeks of the war alone. The Belgian government is providing its citizens with iodine pills. When taken correctly, iodine can help keep the thyroid from absorbing radiation. In the second week of March, pharmacies in Belgium distributed nearly 30,000 boxes of iodine tablets in a single day.
While not everyone may realize it, anguish of this magnitude makes bedfellows of peoples that could never have imagined themselves to be connected. Those living in cities across Europe or North America are unaware that, since the invasion of Ukraine, the interlocutors they need – those who can help teach them how to live every day with a fear that has burrowed into their bodies like an animal – are to be found in the forests of Brazil. To borrow the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s well-aimed turn of phrase, if we want to understand the end of the world, all we have to do is ask the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They’re specialists in the topic. From the Guaranis of Brazil to the Mayas in Mexico, many of them have already lived through the destruction of their worlds.
In the 16th century, when the first European explorers arrived in Amazonia, an estimated 8 to 10 million people lived in the forest. After a few decades of contact, 90% of that population had disappeared, an extermination so radical that it would take nearly five centuries – into the 1960s – for the biome to return to its pre-1500 demographic levels. The descendants of those who survived that slaughter still carry it in memory. Their bodies still resound with what their ancestors underwent in the distant past, what their grandparents and parents underwent in the recent past, and – to the shame of all Brazilians – they themselves have lived to see that perennial slaughter in the present. Today, even more so. And in the coming month, more so than ever, as we shall see.
Brazil has always been slower (more relaxed, shall we say), less efficient than nations that have become solidly rooted in the industrial mold. That said, it would be a mistake to believe that the world has no reason to fear us. Our weapon of mass destruction doesn’t act as quickly as those of nuclear nations, but it is just as lethal. This is, of course, the destruction of Amazonia, our ecological bomb.
The Amazonian biome is one of the systems that the planet needs to function. It controls at least three ecological cycles essential to the continuation of life: carbon, biodiversity, and hydrological flows. There are only nine of these vital cycles – “life support systems,” as scientists have called them – which makes us responsible for at least a third of them.
We have not been living up to that responsibility; rather, we did at one time, if only for a decade. The situation began worsening in 2015 and entered a critically dangerous phase in 2019. Amazonia is now on the verge of ceasing to become a tropical forest. The scientific evidence of this irreversible path has accumulated swiftly, so much so that once-skeptical renowned scientists have now come around to it: we are only a few squares away from the fatal plunge. Not decades down the road, but years. And if we continue clearing the forest at this clip, not many years – a handful.
Of all the tipping points in the world’s climate system, “the Amazon is definitely one of the fastest,” Niklas Boers, a scientist at the Technical University of Munich, tells The Guardian, having co-authored a recent study on the increasingly vulnerable state of the biome. Our forest may cease to be a forest faster than the glaciers in Greenland melt, sooner than the Gulf Stream collapses.
In light of this imminent catastrophe, the government and its supporters are scrambling to pass a bill that will permit mining, oil drilling, and the construction of hydroelectric dams on Indigenous lands. Under certain circumstances, the proposed legislation could allow mining to proceed on a provisional basis, pending legislative authorization. For Indigenous lands that have not yet been officially recognized, no environmental impact studies will be required.
These terms spell out a rush to destruction. They entail the pillaging of ancestral lands, devastating the homes of people who, from the first instant of contact with the colonizers, have suffered incalculable, countless losses, losing their place in the world, growing sick, growing poor, growing desolate, going to beg on street corners in the cities and killing themselves out of despair.
In spite of this onslaught of historical violence, it is Indigenous peoples who have consistently safeguarded the world’s largest tropical forest. There is no better forest protection service anywhere in the world. Without charging a cent, they are preserving a system without which the planet’s equilibrium would crumble. The lowest deforestation rates in Brazil are on Indigenous lands. They are the forest’s last bastion.
Now, the government wants to barrel into the remaining mainstay of our almost nonexistent environmental stewardship. It is revealing to examine who, exactly, plans to make a move on those lands. Major companies, accountable to shareholders and to society, will hesitate before venturing into once-protected territories. Between 2020 and 2021, for example, Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore and nickel, abandoned all of its 89 mining requests on Brazilian Indigenous lands, canceling mineral research and mining activities. Understandable: if they did otherwise, it would undermine the reputation of a company that has been involved, in recent years, in two of the largest environmental disasters in Brazilian history – the collapses in 2015 and 2019 of the Mariana and Brumadinho dams.
It seems highly unlikely that other major corporations will take a different path. The Brazilian Mining Association (Ibram), whose members comprise 85% of the country’s mineral production, published a statement opposing the bill and describing it as “unfit to accomplish its own stated goals”. Encroaching on Indigenous territory in the heart of the planet’s largest tropical biome, seizing the last places in which a forest under attack still stands, scarring lands in which the slightest environmental disturbance is captured in real time by thousands of satellites crisscrossing the skies: this is a profoundly toxic path. It would be tantamount to corporate suicide. Whichever mining companies do take the bait will come from countries without a robust civil society, and hence with no obligation to transparency. They will come from China, from the countries of the Middle East or Central Asia. And – no coincidence there – they will be corporations that prefer to act in relatively undeveloped regions, so as to take advantage of malleable political systems, fragile environmental regulations, and a weak State presence.
If those companies do come, plenty of lucrative deals will certainly be struck, many of them just as clandestine as the “rapporteur-designated budgetary grants” in Brazil’s Congress, now known by its infamous yet far more precise moniker, “the secret federal budget.” The bill, however, is not designed to attract Chinese or Kazakhs. In the words of the president of the Brazilian Association of Mineral and Mining Research Companies (ABPM), Luis Maurício Ferraiuoli Azevedo, hardly an environmentalist: “As it stands, [the bill] is much more oriented toward gold mining.”
We know what this kind of activity means in the Amazon. The appropriate term for it is wildcat mining, garimpo. As several recent studies have confirmed, this sort of prospecting has become yet another business for criminal syndicates, starting with the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), which currently dominates the practice on Yanomami lands. The fact that the Brazilian Constitution outlaws gold mining in indigenous territories has not swayed the government into action. On the contrary, the new bill aims to circumvent the obstacle by making it legal. While so often evoked in defensive rhetoric, the lone prospector sifting sand on the riverbank, a poor Brazilian after his daily bread, is a relic, a character now used to lend a welfare-minded veneer to an activity that is both increasingly violent and heavily capitalized. Wildcat mining, today, is a venture whose means of production include barges that cost R$2 million on average (about US$400,000), illegally bought mercury, and people working in deplorable conditions guarded by AR-15s – now loaded with untraceable bullets, thanks to a fit of presidential generosity.
One new development from the past four years has been organized crime’s breakneck push into the Amazon. Today, the forest is ground zero for the struggle between the PCC and their rivals, the Comando Vermelho (CV). These organizations are orchestrating criminal activity in Amazonia, be it gold prospecting, land-grabbing, logging, or smuggling drugs on their way to Europe. Riverine and Indigenous communities are being coopted in the process. Countless small towns now survive on crime.
And this is a model of development, in its own way – the political and administrative modus operandi of the paramilitary-led outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, successfully transplanted to the Amazon. All things considered – what with the government’s support for land grabbers, illegal loggers, and wildcat miners, and its attack on watchdog agencies like Ibama – we might as well borrow the Lula-era turn of phrase and call it a Crime Acceleration Program.
It would be nothing short of redundant to say that the nation’s first family is intimately familiar with what is happening in Amazonia. After all, this is merely the expansion of the paramilitary groups and the criminal enterprises, the petri dish that produced the political order which is now spreading across the country. We would do well not to forget that the president’s eldest son, currently serving in the Senate, once pinned a medal on one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious killers, paramilitary leader Adriano da Nóbrega, the head of the murder-for-hire syndicate accused of having assassinated city councilwoman Marielle Franco in 2018. Years earlier, while awaiting trial for another murder, Nóbrega, still in his cell, was presented with the highest honor that the Rio state legislature can bestow, the Tiradentes Medal.
And here we Brazilians are, faced with Jair Bolsonaro, but there is no mistaking him for a Sphinx: the man has no riddles. We know what he is and what he wants. We know each page of his compendium of iniquities.
We know his indecency when he declares his solidarity with Russia – solidarity, hence, with those responsible for scenes like the one captured in the now sadly famous photograph of a family laid out on the ground: a mother of 43, a son of 18, and a daughter of 9, backpacks still on their backs, all killed as they tried to flee Russian artillery near a bridge on the outskirts of Kyiv (there is a fourth victim in the photo, a 26-year-old volunteer who was helping the family to safety). This solidarity does not surprise us. The president, as we have known for some time now, is not indifferent to the spectacle of violent death. On the contrary: it excites him.
We know his cowardice, the full pathetic weight of it, when he refers to the president of Ukraine as a comedian.
We know his corruption, which began small and cheap, as insignificant as he was at the time, and is now vast, the size of his current powers, which allow him to direct a torrent of public money, gushing out with no sluices and no oversight. Three and a half years into his tenure, it might be instructive to ask the standard-bearers of morality whether they are satisfied with the federal budget on the Speaker of the House’s desk. If they are at peace with a system that produces legislators like Josimar Maranhãozinho (pl-ma), a congressman in the president’s party, under federal investigation for using armed groups to extort a chunk of nebulously categorized federal earmarks out of city governments in his state. If they are comforted at the sight of the innermost circle of power, which includes such brothers in the faith and counselors as Fabrício Queiroz and Frederick Wassef – the former, the Bolsonaro family’s chief embezzler and money launderer with long-standing ties to paramilitary groups, spending his post-jail free time proffering analyses on YouTube in which he turns his keen geopolitical analysis to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country cursed by its “weak government, that joke of a government that disarmed its people and handed over its weapons,” weakness typical of a “leftist government”; the latter, recently charged with racial hate speech after a contemptible scene in which he refused to be served by an 18-year-old waitress in a pizzeria in Brasília: “Because you’re black, and you look two-faced.” These are the members of the privy council for the man chosen to restore Brazil’s honor.
We know all of this, and it was with this catalogue of base offenses that we have arrived at our own version of the end of the world, the bill currently dashing through Congress as fast as a fleeing criminal.
The forest will be turned into paramilitary territory; the process is already underway. The bill will be put to a vote in April without a shred of real debate. If it passes, Brazil will have committed the perfect crime against the future – both its own and the planet’s. The sorrow will be incalculable. We will have to live with the daily consequences of the injustice that was committed during our lifetimes and under our noses, against those who, long before us, not only made the forest their home, but cultivated it and built it over millennia alongside a host of other creatures. The Amazon is not merely a monument of nature; it is an artifact of culture, the legacy of an organic civilization that wrought its work not with stone or metal, but with soil and plants, wood and fungi – the forests which, as archaeologist Eduardo Neves puts it so beautifully, “are our Pyramids.” These are the pyramids about to be officially opened up for looting.
And so here we are, we Brazilians, a few months away from a choice that has long ceased to be merely political and has become a matter of civilization.
Ukraine “entrusted a comedian with the fate of a nation” and reaped the consequences, proclaimed Brazil’s president, as if to say: And see what it got them. Indeed, it got them a people who have banded together in a life-or-death battle for self-determination, freedom, and the right to tell future generations that, in that fatal hour, they stood their ground and acted with honor. Not a bad legacy.
Brazil elected Bolsonaro and reaped the consequences. The angel of History will say: look around and behold the ruins. They surround us, and they are our shame, much more so than the ruins of Mariupol or Kyiv. Those were created by the aggressor; these, by us, Brazilians. The ruins of education, the ruins of hunger, the ruins of health, the ruins of the environment, the ruins of right-minded people’s morality, of liberal thinkers with college diplomas and well-paying jobs who in 2018 rubber-stamped a political movement that never went to the bother of hiding what it was.
Historians reject the notion of the “great man,” but at certain moments it is difficult to doubt his existence – not his superior moral character or talents, but the fact of his staggering influence. The products of historical circumstances, great men are brought to power and mold those historical circumstances in such a fashion that they unleash changes, not of intensity, but of quality. Churchill was a great man, as were Fidel, Mandela, Gandhi; and Volodymyr Zelensky may well be (it’s still too soon to say). And Putin certainly is one, however sinister his designs.
In October, we will face our own great riddle: Who are we Brazilians? Those who say no to the barbarity wrought on our land, or those who double down on the choice made in 2018? Will we be Zelensky or Putin? Will we choose life or death?
Documentarista, é fundador da piauí. Dirigiu Santiago, Entreatos, Notícias de uma Guerra Particular e Nelson Freire